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President Carter Mulls Historical Significance of Barack Obama

August 25, 2008 at 8:40 PM EDT
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President Jimmy Carter sits down with Jim Lehrer, Mark Shields and David Brooks to reflect on the race for the White House, Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy, and the historical significance of the moment.

JIM LEHRER: And now there’s going to be a brief interlude. And we’re going to use that time to the best advantage possible by talking to former President Jimmy Carter.

Mr. President, thank you for coming.

JIMMY CARTER, Former President of the United States: Jim, it’s great to be on your program. I watch you every night…

JIM LEHRER: Well, terrific.

JIMMY CARTER: … and look forward to Fridays.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, well, share with us your own personal enthusiasm, level of enthusiasm for the Obama-Biden ticket.

JIMMY CARTER: Well, somebody already said I’m the elder statesman here. And I think this is my ninth convention in a row, beginning in ’76.

I think that this is one of the most exciting and challenging opportunities for the Democratic Party we’ve ever had. And I say that looking back at a long time of history.

But I don’t think there’s ever been a more enlightening, and inspirational, and innovative primary season than we’ve had. It came out almost exactly even, as you know. There are still some holdbacks among the former Clinton supporters that haven’t yet supported Obama enthusiastically.

But I predict that, by the end of this convention, we’ll see the end of that reticence and a major jump in the public opinion polls for Obama.

I notice in one of the periodicals this morning, USA Today, that only 46 percent of Hillary Clinton’s supporters are now enthusiastically for Obama. And the same thing happened to me, by the way, if I have just a moment, in 1976, because you may or may not remember — well, you’re old enough to remember…

JIM LEHRER: I remember ’76.

JIMMY CARTER: … but the Gerald Ford and Reagan people were at each other’s throats. They went through a horrible Republican convention. And many of the Reagan people swore before God they would never support Gerald Ford.

And they didn’t for a number of weeks. In fact, right after the conventions, I was about 15 points ahead. But as the time went by, they slowly went from Reagan to Gerald Ford, and I just won by a narrow margin. I got a majority, by the way.

But I predicted this time we’ll see this convention make the difference. They won’t wait weeks after the convention. They’ll do it almost immediately.

Convert for Obama

President Carter
I think [Obama's] got grassroots experience in Chicago working among communities. That's very valuable. He's got time in the Senate. He's been on the Foreign Relations Committee and others. He's had to make decisions in the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: But you're a convert for Obama, are you not?


JIM LEHRER: 2006, you said you questioned his experience and qualifications to be president.

JIMMY CARTER: That was two years before that. But by January of this year -- we have 26 votes that kind of inherited for me and Rose, to counting the two of us -- we have 24 descendants and spouses that are qualified to vote. All but one of them and us were for Obama, and one of them was for Edwards at first and then shifted over to Obama when Edwards dropped out in Georgia.

So the whole Carter family has been enthusiastically for Obama since the beginning of the campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Does the experience issue against him ring true to you, particularly compared to John McCain?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, if you compare it to John McCain -- he hadn't been there. He's not that old, as John McCain...

JIM LEHRER: No, no, what I mean is that Barack Obama, I mean, the rap on Obama is that he doesn't have enough experience to be president of the United States compared to John McCain.

JIMMY CARTER: Well, you know, I think he's got grassroots experience in Chicago working among communities. That's very valuable. He's got time in the Senate. He's been on the Foreign Relations Committee and others. He's had to make decisions in the Senate.

He's worked very closely with all the other senators, very close in particular with Joe Biden. And I think that that's enough experience, maybe even more than, say, governor of Georgia or governor of -- you know, governor of -- you know, I'd say even Arkansas and certainly Texas. So I think that's very good experience.

But I think whatever he lacked in long-time experience, like 35 years in the Senate, he fully made up with Joe Biden, who is a superb choice.



Race as an issue

President Carter
I think that this time you'll see North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida go for Obama. And I think that's very important.

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: The structure of the race, Mr. President, is that the Democrats are way ahead of the Republicans generically.


DAVID BROOKS: But Barack Obama is maybe only slightly ahead of John McCain personally.


DAVID BROOKS: How much do you think that's race? And how much do you think it's other things?

JIMMY CARTER: A little bit of it's race, I think, but you notice he carried Georgia, and he carried Plains, Georgia, and he carried my family. And I think that that is a very good indication that the race issue is a minimal issue now.

But in some voters, it will continue to be an issue. And it has been ever since Goldwater ran against Johnson in 1964. It's been there. And that's the reason that the Republican Party has been so successful in the South. I carried every state in the South, except Virginia, but we have not had much luck since then.

But I think that this time you'll see North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida go for Obama. And I think that's very important.

But I still think that the major holdback in a massive move equal to what the Democratic Party holds over the Republicans is the reticence on the part of many very fervent supporters of Hillary Clinton that have not yet been willing to say, "OK, I'm willing to give up on Senator Clinton and cast my lot with Obama."

I don't think a very tiny portion of those doubtful people are actually going to vote Republican, particularly for somebody like John McCain, in November.


Breakthrough in racial segregation

President Carter
I think that this breakthrough by Barack Obama has been remarkable.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Mr. President, you've written movingly as a young boy listening in the segregated South, where you grew up, to the broadcast of the fight between Hitler's favorite, Max Schmeling, and African-American Joe Louis...

JIMMY CARTER: That's right.

MARK SHIELDS: ... and being just moved by the reaction of your African-American neighbors to that. Give us your own feelings, as we sit here, having grown up in that experience, having been the first post-Civil War Southern president, really, of the old South, not of the national leadership of the party, of the nomination of a Barack Obama as president of the United States.

JIMMY CARTER: Well, I'd just say, I was the first president of the deep South in 140 years or more. And I grew up totally immersed in a racially segregated nation, where "separate but equal" was the law of the land. And in the South, it was intensely and meticulously observed.

And that was supported by lawyers. It was supported by preachers and everybody else. And I didn't have any white neighbors. All my neighbors were black. I was immersed in a black culture.

And I saw the remnants of that as I went and became an adult. I went to the naval academy. We had the first black midshipman while I was there who followed me the following year. And he had a struggle when he arrived. I was a strong supporter of him. He's written about this.

As a matter of fact, the one person that broke the line on racial segregation was Harry Truman. I was a submarine officer in 1948. And Harry Truman, with the stroke of a pen as commander-in-chief, said that racial discrimination in the military services is over. And nobody could question him; he had the authority as commander-in-chief.

And it was many years later, before Rosa Parks sat on the front seat of a bus or Martin Luther King, Jr., became famous, but my life was changed by Harry Truman, whom I still think is the best president of this past century.

So I've seen it happen. And I think that this breakthrough by Barack Obama has been remarkable.

When he made his speech a few months ago in Philadelphia, I wept. I sat in front of the television and cried, because I saw that as the most enlightening and transforming analysis of racism and a potential end of it that I ever saw in my life.

JIM LEHRER: And do you think that -- if it happens that he is elected, or even just being nominated, is -- will send positive ripple effects throughout the country on the race issue?

JIMMY CARTER: Around the world. Around the world. And I think it already has sent a wave of approbation and admiration in many countries around the world, just knowing that this black boy who grew up with just a loving mother and grandparents -- and that was about all he had to start with -- does now have a chance to become the nominee of the Democratic Party for president.

And Rose and I have visited a few more than 125 nations since I left the White House. And we've seen a disillusionment about our country in the last eight years, with a lot of things happening, like torturing of prisoners and that sort of thing. I won't go into detail about that.

But I don't think there's any doubt that there's a spirit and a bright, new hope for America within this country and around the world. And if Obama is elected, which I think he is going to be, then I think that will be the transforming race for the end of racism, and prejudice, and hatred between races in this country.

JIM LEHRER: That's quite a statement.

JIMMY CARTER: I believe it's true.

JIM LEHRER: All right, Mr. President, thank you so much for coming by to see us. It's always a pleasure to see you, sir.

JIMMY CARTER: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir.

JIMMY CARTER: Thank you very much.